Interesting NPR segment today: A powerful eruption on the sun disrupted radio signals on earth. What’s remarkable is it’s a PhD candidate talking to an NPR host about solar flares, completely in two Southern Black accents. Two women, at that.

I am dismayed at my own involuntary racist reaction to these voices. I do not expect educated people to speak this kind of English. A crystal clear example of my prejudice. I know and respect Ayesha Rascoe’s work on NPR. India Jackson is a PhD candidate and clearly a domain expert. The segment is good, detailed at the right level for the NPR audience. But I hear the accent and my knee-jerk reaction is negative. In my defense I was raised to be like this and I am trying to be better.

My favorite moment is about 2 minutes in, discussing the threats to humanity from a solar flare:

RASCOE: Do we have any way to prevent that?
RASCOE: No, no.
JACKSON: No, no, no.
RASCOE: That’s not…
JACKSON: We cannot…
RASCOE: We don’t want to hear that, India.
JACKSON: We cannot prevent the sun from doing what she goin’ to do.

The way she delivers that last line, stretches “sun” to two syllables with an intense diphthong. It’s delightful! And effective. She’s discussing a complex topic in astrophysics and the frightening threats it poses to humanity. But then she uses a vernacular phrasing, “doing what she goin’ to do”, to highlight our impotence. She makes the topic relatable, almost friendly, a perfect tone for an NPR’s more casual weekend programming.

I hate this prejudice in me, that certain kinds of accents read as ignorant. I know I’m not alone in having it. I am glad this NPR segment challenged me.

  2023-12-17 21:33 Z

The Trump campaign and his braintrust have been very clear and open about their planning for a second presidency, mostly under the umbrella of Project 2025. There’s been a lot of good journalism about it. Some examples:

None of these articles are speculation or alarmist inflation. They are direct reporting of what they themselves are saying they plan to do. Not only does the Trump camp feel free to be so open in their extremism, they see it as an election asset.

  2023-11-11 22:19 Z

I am no longer talking to politicians. I have been aggressively filtering my email, a constant battle. Now I will no longer accept their calls. Unfortunately my home phone number is ruined. Between scams and politicians I never answer my phone unless I recognize the caller ID.

I’m an active political donor, particularly for US Congress. But once you get seen as a mark who is willing to give $$$$ to a candidate, you get a lot of personal communications. Congresspeople call me several times a month. The email is overwhelming. I do not want to talk to people who pretend to be my friend for two minutes and then ask me for $3300.

The worst are the few politicians who’ve succeeded in making a connection with me. They’re personal on the phone, they took good notes, it feels like we have a conversation. But of course it’s all in service to their fundraising campaigns. They’re just good at pretending a polite social connection.

I’ve protected myself from spam by withholding my email address and phone number. But I started too late, that data is already out and widely shared. Candidates buy this information and abuse me. It’s mild corruption but worse it’s obnoxious. I am done with it.

I might still donate based on my own research. Toying with the idea of not donating to anyone who spams me too much.

Bonus: NGP VAN, the company that enables a lot of Democratic Party spam, is collapsing. Ever since Apax Partners bought them they’ve been laying off people and their meagre services are deteriorating. This is terrible for the Democrats, they don’t have a good alternative. It may make the spam problem worse too.

  2023-11-01 15:40 Z

We’ve moved into a new phase of Covid-19 in America, the selfish phase. It disgusts me.

The image above is from a holiday party at a fancy business club in Texas. Everyone gets to make their own choice, see? Some folks say "no contact", some folks say "bring it on". Everyone gets to do what they think is best for themselves, what’s the problem?

We finally have Covid-19 vaccines. The primary discussion is whether people will choose to take them. Surely it should be everyone’s own personal decision? Some 40% of Americans think it might be OK for them to personally decide not to vaccinate themselves, as if their decision only affected them.

That is not how public health works.

The only way to control a highly contagious disease is to quarantine to slow the spread, then vaccinate so that a large majority of your population has immunity. Only then does the disease die down. The quarantine period is difficult and requires personal sacrifice for the common good. Americans refuse to do it. It’s against our very national nature, what we think of as the virtue of individualism. The flipside of that is selfishness.

I’m in a Facebook argument because someone in Nevada County thinks it’s "hateful" for me to answer a request about "which nail salons are open" with the comment that they all should be closed. The discussion instead is about how awful it is we can’t get our nails done, and it’s our choice anyway, and won’t everyone think of the poor nail salon workers who need jobs? Meanwhile our hospitals are at 100% capcity statewide and in the middle of the biggest outbreak of Covid-19 yet. But folks gotta get their nails done.

The sheer selfishness of it is revolting. Look also to our California political leaders going to big indoor dinner parties at lavish restaurants in defiance of social distancing rules. Or how it’s apparently everyone’s personal choice whether to wear a mask, ignoring the risk they put other people in. Or the millions of people travelling for Christmas. That same selfishness at Thanksgiving led to a major case growth; now that’s just going to be doubled.

I grappled with this question back in July and concluded the main reason I was being so careful about Covid isolation was to keep other people safe. That was about a month before the Sturgis motorcycle rally led to a major surge in the virus all over the middle of the country. I sure feel like a sucker now, I’m not sure why I’ve bothered.

America is a nation of selfish people. And it’s literally killing us. 330,000 and counting.

  2020-12-26 23:42 Z

Well Biden didn't win easily last night, so there's lots of vote counting to come. The press is mostly saying Biden is likely to win, but it's really not certain.

The immediate danger is Trump and his authoritarian speech he gave last night. It's the most astonishingly anti-democratic thing I've ever heard an American president say. It should disqualify him immediately from holding any elected office in the US.

But it won't, so we're going to have an ugly knife fight in the coming weeks. Expect 2000 Florida style nastiness over vote counting in 5+ states. I just hope the disputes stay in polite court discussions and don't turn into real violence.

Getting to a complete vote count will be hard, and it will be unpleasant, and it will be expensive. But the alternative is letting our country be stolen by an authoritarian who openly declares his intent to ignore the vote and just take power.

  2020-11-04 15:06 Z

It’s been clear for awhile that Trump is very likely to lose a fair election. I’ve been worrying about what happens if the election is not fair. There’s a lot of ways the election can be stolen. We’ve been watching the Republicans fight tooth and nail to make it harder for people to vote these last weeks. They will keep fighting after the election to try to invalidate votes that were cast, which is where I think the real danger lies. But in this essay I want to focus on election day itself, intimidation at the voting place.

In general in America, intimidating voters is illegal. It is a federal crime to "intimidate, threaten, [or] coerce any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of [that] other person to vote or to vote as he may choose." On Tuesday if you are intimidated or see voter intimidation, please report it. The ACLU-recommended hotline is 1-866-OUR-VOTE, the Democratic Party’s hotline is 1-833-336-8683, and the US DoJ’s hotline is 800-253-3931. Despite the law, America has a long ugly history of voter intimidation, particularly against Black voters.

The recent history starts with the Ballot Security Task Force of 1981. This was a group of Republican-organized off duty police officers hired in New Jersey to maraud African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods on election day. They verbally and physically intimidated voters and blocked access to the polls. This action and various other Republican-led voter suppression efforts were so egregious the Republicans were forced into a consent decree to not suppress the vote, with significant federal oversight. That agreement expired in 2017.

So now the Republicans no longer have their hands tied and seem to be reverting to various forms of voter suppression and intimidation. Many of them are murky and on the margins, so first let’s clarify the simplest cases of how voters could be intimidated.

US Military: It is illegal for the US military to be at polling places. 18 U.S. Code § 592 makes this very clear. No one considers this a real threat in 2020.

National Guard: it is legal for the various National Guards to help at polling places if requested by the state. Generally, unarmed and out of uniform. Mostly they’re asked to serve as poll workers; set up tables, help run the polling station. It’s historically been calm and uncontroversial. In 2020 there has been concern about some states calling up the National Guard for security; Greg Abbott in Texas, for instance. The assumption at the moment is they’re only on standby in case of violence. If they enter any polling stations armed or in uniform, it will be a very alarming turn of events.

State and local police: it depends on state law, but in many states it is legal for police to be at a polling place, in uniform and armed. In five states it’s required! Voter intimidation is still illegal, but it’s easy to see how the mere presence of an armed white cop watching voters could be intimidating for voters, particularly Black voters. It is what it is; the main problem to look for is a pattern of deliberate police intimidation.

Barr’s Army: this summer Trump and Barr created an unregulated paramilitary organization. They attacked peaceful protestors in Washington DC so that Trump could do a photo op, then later occupied parts of Portland for several weeks. Much of that army is made of civilian DHS agents who are not subject to military regulations. It’s entirely unclear whether it would be legal for this force to show up at a polling place, although it would certainly be a frightening turn to facism.

Unlawful militias: it is completely illegal for a random armed citizens group to show up at or near a polling place and intimidate voters. That doesn’t mean there’s no risk of it happening. The only appropriate response would be a swift capture and arrest by local or national law enforcement.

Poll watchers: there’s lots of room under "poll watchers" and "voting advocates" to have potentially hostile people in a polling place. Passive poll watching is fine, but it’s possible to abuse the role or the access to disenfranchise voters. Trump has made a lot of noise about having watchers to stop imaginary voting fraud, but "poll watching" is also a classic intimidation technique. There’s been some troubling signs of who’s being recruited to be poll watchers: ex-special forces and retired police in Minnesota for instance. Note the organization of those watchers is literally called Trump’s Army; the militarized language is not an accident.

Random people: I put this here because it’s just so American: in some states like Michigan an individual can carry a gun while voting. I assume it’d be illegal for them to do anything with the gun but why the hell is it even allowed?

That’s all the niceties of the law. The reality on the ground could be very different. If a few hundreds ICE thugs show up at a Philadelphia polling place on Tuesday in anonymous uniforms with grenades and assault weapons in hand, what’s going to happen? An emergency court order, several hours of chaos, and a suppressed vote. What if rumors spread in Detroit that there’s a group of militia guys running around threatening to shoot people near the polling places? How many people won’t take the risk to go vote?

The only thing stopping voting intimidation in the moment is basic decency. But the Republicans have a history of not caring about decency when it comes to voting rights. I don’t think they’d go so far as an armed coup but there’s plenty of room at the margins for intimidating enough voters to affect the vote. Know your rights. Report any intimidation: 1-866-OUR-VOTE. Trump is very likely going to lose a fair vote; do not let him steal this election.

  2020-11-02 18:13 Z

Democrats can win a whole lot of seats in Congress this year, quite possibly even taking control of the Senate. There are 15 Senatorial elections that are not solid locks; of those, 13 are currently held by Republicans. And there’s some 64 close House races.

I just made 25 donations to campaigns for the Senate and the House. I hate the idea of paying in to American campaign financing and it’s a lot of work figuring out who to donate to. But making donations like this in 2018 made me feel like an active participant in the political process. It’s like buying tickets for your hometown baseball team, then keeping track of how your team does. It’s engagement. So I’m back again this year.

My main criterion is "support the Democrat in close races". I am not aiming for every candidate to win; that’d be money wasted. I give money where it might make a difference. Some more sophisticated people than me also look to donate in races that are underfunded or otherwise worth special attention. Swing Left does an excellent job packaging this kind of analysis up in a single one-stop donation form, plus advice on how you can volunteer your time. Read on here if you’d rather do it yourself.

My primary source of information for which races are close is the Cook Political Report: Senate and House. Ballotpedia is also a very useful source of information about specific races, including candidate funding and likelihood of winning. See their battlegrounds pages for more info: Senate and House. Finally the WashPo recently did a great article on Senate races that is a useful guide.

For the Senate, I ended up donating to 13 of 15 close races. The candidates are Gary Peters MI, Doug Jones AL, Mark Kelly AZ, John Hickenlooper CO, Jon Ossoff GA, Theresa Greenfield IA, Sarah Gideon ME, Cal Cunningham NC, MJ Hegar TX, Barbara Bollier KS, Jamie Harrison SC, Amy McGrath KY, and Steve Bullock MT. Alaska hasn’t had their primary yet, so I’m waiting on that. There’s also a special election in Georgia but the November race is effectively a jungle primary, so again I’m waiting. I only spent a couple minutes looking at each candidate’s political positions, mostly to verify they were OK on LGBT rights. I’m sure I disagree with some of them on some things.

For the House, in 2018 I mostly gave to the close California races. But this year there’s only 3 close races in CA, so I expanded my list to include 3 races I knew something about the candidate and then 5 more left-wing candidates from the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Justice Democrats. The candidates are Christy Smith CA-25, TJ Cox CA-21, Harley Rouda CA-48, Hiral Tipirneni AZ-06, Hillary Scholten MI-03, Lizzie Fletcher TX-07, Angie Craig MN-02, Matt Cartwright PA-08, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell FL-26, Andy Kim NJ-03, and Kara Eastman NE-02.

Finally I gave one special donation to my most local candidate: Audrey Denney for CA-01 including Grass Valley, CA. The Cook Report doesn’t show it as a close race but I think it’s closer than it looks; the current Republican LaMalfa is a real loser, less popular even than Donald Trump. And Denney ran a strong campaign in 2018 and is looking even better this year.

Donating online is remarkably easy; all but one of these candidates are using ActBlue, an excellent product. See my earlier blog post about avoiding spam when you donate; in particular do not give ActBlue or any candidate your phone number or primary email address.

I would like to add a caveat to all this optimism, which is that I’m basing it on there being a fair vote. But I give a ~10% chance of massive voting fraud conducted by the GOP resulting in a deeply unfair election. Not just the usual voter suppression and structural bias towards the GOP. But some broad and enormous combination of invalidating or not counting vote-by-mail ballots and using Barr’s Army to intimidate vote counters similar to what was done in Miami in 2000. I honestly don’t know how to fight this kind of coup, the best I’ve done so far is donate to voting rights agencies like the Brennan Center and the ACLU.

  2020-08-12 21:56 Z

America has failed to contain Covid-19. It seems the virus will continue to spread unchecked and every American will be exposed in the next few months. So now what? Is there any point in even trying to isolate?

I feel like people haven’t yet recognized the magnitude of our failure to control the disease. We are at 45,000 new cases a day; a significant increase over the early April peak of 30,000. And the rate is accelerating. We have uncontrolled growth in the wake of states relaxing social restrictions. There’s now a move to improve distancing a little bit but the only thing that would stop this kind of spread is a lockdown even more severe than those of March and April. No one is talking about doing that.

To be clear, this loss of control is a uniquely American failure. Compare to Germany, Spain, Canada and China. All had an infection spike, some quite a bit higher on a per capita basis. All tamed the disease and are now finding 0-10 new cases a day. Pretty much all developed countries have controlled this disease; you have to look to Brazil for a catastrophe as bad as ours.

We gave up on containment. My question is… now what? We seem to have accepted that the whole country is going to be exposed to Covid-19. Is there any point in trying to socially isolate or distance now? Why go through enormous restrictions on your personal life if you’re just going to get infected anyway despite best precautions? If 10% of the people in your town are infected, the only way you’re going to avoid getting it yourself is extreme isolation. Washing your hands and trying to maintain six feet from others isn’t going to save you, particularly when the Trump mouth breathers around you won’t even wear a mask.

The main communal reason I see to continue to distance is to try to at least slow the spread down. The pressing danger now is we get a big enough spike in critical cases that hospitals are overwhelmed and people start dying again for lack of medical care. A miserable year+ of semi-lockdown might help. That seems to be what California is governing too, at least. But that’s an altruistic argument. My own personal case isn’t going to overwhelm the hospitals, so why deprive myself?

For me the personal motivation to continue to maintain isolation is moral. I don’t want to get sick, but I really really don’t want to get other people sick. Like my partner Ken, who is old enough there’s a significant risk to his life if he gets a bad case. So I feel like I have a moral responsibility to continue to distance myself. It’s very hard to maintain that standard when so many Americans don’t.

Our government has completely failed to protect the public welfare. Trump’s deadly ignorance is well documented and bears a lot of the blame. The Republican leadership mostly repeats his Covid denialism. But the Democrats aren’t doing much better. Here in California, Newsom’s informed and well-meaning policies seem to be failing nearly as badly as the ruinous Republican policies in Texas and Florida. We have week-long delays for test results, not enough contact tracing, and uncontrolled spread in half the state. Even my little small town mayor has failed her people.

America is simply incapable of dealing with a national health crisis. We’ve defaulted into a path where everyone gets sick and too bad for the millions who will die. We have failed. What’s the appropriate personal response?

  2020-07-03 17:26 Z

A friend from Houston posted an article on Facebook: Daughter of Astros legend Ken Caminiti calls out racism she experienced growing up in Pecan Grove. She talks eloquently about the racism inherent in the street names of Pecan Grove, TX, a 1970s-era Houston suburb.

When your white children tell their black friends that they live on Plantation Dr, Confederate Ct, or Brown School Ct, these black children do not think of streets, they think of racism.

Pecan Grove being largely white, there’s some pushback to that criticism. And the immediate cry of "don’t make us change the street names! Don’t erase history!". That got me curious about Pecan Grove’s actual history, beyond the romantic racism of "Old Dixie Dr".

Mind you, I’ve spent all of thirty minutes on this, a real historian could do a much better job. But even with such little effort I did better than the neighborhood’s own history page, which presents Pecan Grove as springing fully out of nowhere in 1973. This online history is a little better and in particular highlights the presence of the Hunter Plantation. Which was presumably mostly sugar but had one fine pecan tree as well, hence the name. I'm not 100% certain Pecan Grove is built exactly on the Hunter Plantation land, I did not do that research, but given their excitement to use the word "Plantation" on parks and street names I think it's likely connected.

The Hunter Plantation founder Johnson Calhoun Hunter was one of the Old Three Hundred, some of the first white non-Spanish settlers in the area. His children took over the plantation and ran it right through the slave years and on until about 1900.

The Hunters were slavers. According to the 1860 Slave Schedules they owned at least 53 slaves. Thomas Hunter (born 1821) listed his occupation as "Overseer" in 1850 and "farmer" in 1860. He owned 39 people. Martha Hunter (born 1790) owned 13. William Hunter (born 1830) only owned 4 human beings. A disappointment to the family, I’m sure.

Sadly, the Slave Schedules tell us next to nothing about the victims themselves, the slaves. No names, no histories. The ages are pretty horrifying though. 16 of Thos’ chattel slaves were fourteen or younger. Do you suppose Thos waited for the little girls to reach puberty before taking "his privilege" on them? Did he force the 55 year old men to work in the fields? Wm’s slaves were 33, 24, 31, and 10. Martha had a 4 month old baby to call her own.

How many slaves do you suppose are buried in unmarked graves under the suburban streets? I wonder what happened to them after Emancipation. Something tells me they aren’t living in Pecan Grove now.

Pecan Grove does have a Plantation Memorial Park. But it’s not a memorial to the slaves who worked and died at the plantation. It’s a memorial to military veterans. Which is certainly fine (it’s not a Confederate memorial), but one wonders why the word Plantation is on it. Pride in their white heritage, no doubt.

  2020-06-11 16:18 Z

Like everyone I’m riding out this Covid-19 lockdown with a mix of depression, anxiety, anger, boredom. And obsessively reading every detailed quality article I can find about both the disease and the politics around the disease. And it’s just all too much. Ordinarily my goal is to research something and get at some truth people don’t know about, then report it. I did this a couple of weeks ago about an unfounded theory that SARS-CoV-2 was in California last fall.

But right now there’s so many awful things going on. And I go deep on some topic and it doesn’t matter because it’s just all too much. People don’t care about the details of some particular nuance of antibody test specificity and Bayesian statistics. They just want to know "is the medical science going to make us safe?" "Are our politicians doing a good job helping us be safe?"

The top level answer on medical science is "science will make us safe, but it takes time". The top level on the politics is "America is doing a terrible job". The Trump administration is full of vandals and science deniers. Trump himself seems worried only in trying to save his re-election chances and lurches day to day to new outrages. Some of the states, including California, are doing better but it’s all going way too slow. My particular anger is focussed on the lack of testing capacity. We are way below what we need to safely reopen the country.

Anyway, it’s all too much. So rather than meticulously run down a bunch of complicated stories I’m just going to list a bunch of the big outrages with minimal references, just so I don’t lose track or forget that they have happened.

It’s not a comprehensive list, it’s just the outrages of the last two months I could remember offhand. It’s too much.

If you made it all the way to the bottom of this bummer post, let me give you one silver lining in the Covid-19 cloud. J. Kenji López-Alt, my favorite food nerd, has been doing an excellent series of home cooking videos. They are a delight.

  2020-04-24 19:53 Z